Orchard bounty thrives in abundant varieties


September 25, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Right now in the apple world the thing that they're all screaming for is called the Gala. It's tiny. It's sweet. It may grow into the bonanza early apple of the 1990s. But this season, at least in some specimens distributed free by local orchards, it is no bigger than a golf ball.

You can blame the small size on the awesome 1991 mid-Atlantic drought, but the impression of growers is that the apple still needs some more cultivation before it emerges in standard marketing sizes.

Meanwhile, the standbys of locally grown apples remain -- a litany of tried and true names, including York, Jonathan, Red and Golden Delicious, Grimes Golden, Rambo, Rome and McIntosh.

The great division in apples is, of course, "eating" apples vs. "cooking" apples.

The eaters are sweet and tender, clean and ripe and are best eaten cold, skin and all. The cookers are peeled (unless baked whole) and are tart and firm and hold up well in mom's pie, the pan dowdy, the cobbler or a chef's tatin.

And almost any apple can be cidered, sauced or baked, but some are too tart or mealy for pleasurable raw service.

Once you leave this familiar realm, however, the apple world diversifies. Apple varieties change as the years pass. They intermarry and have kids, even grandchildren. But family strains remain, and the stable types continue to dominate the market with both minor and major changes in popularity.

If varieties change and marketing diversifies, apple recipes don't very much. In fact, if you can find a small mill or a high-powered mixer, you don't need a recipe and can make your own cider. I am a ciderholic who prefers the beverage that comes chilled and fresh from slightly tart Jonathans, but the fact is, you can make cider from any old apple, as orchardists will tell you.

If the apple you buy disappoints in flavor, try ripening it further European-style by keeping it for a few days in a cool place. Try it again when the skin has just begun to develop tiny shrinkage lines. The flavor should have intensified. Whenever possible, get your apples from your own region when available, generally from August through October and early November. Locally grown apples often are tree-ripened, which usually means more flavor and freshness.

Here is a short summary of the characteristics of some major apple types marketed by Maryland orchards:

*McIntosh -- A roundish apple of the Yankee country that colors like a blush on a cream-colored billiard ball, the McIntosh is noted as being one of the hardiest of all varieties. It showed up from nowhere in a cleared frontier acreage of the Mohawk valley about 1815 and began to spread after 1820 and soon was propagated to grow true to type. It's primarily a juice, sauce and dessert apple. Canada has erected a monument to the variety, and it's the leading variety in the northeastern United States.

*Rambo -- A humble, pinky-streaky apple that is one of the first arrivals as a fresh local apple on the Maryland-Virginia scene. It's relatively versatile but rarely equals some of the fancier varieties, resembling everyday Romes and Yorks in flavor. A good cooker, but not a distinguished eating apple.

*Red Delicious -- It's the world's most popular variety, the Christmas stocking apple personified with a Maryland type that ripens strawberry-colored, like the classic apple in everybody's still-life painting. Reds are grown on every continent. They were discovered in Iowa in the 1890s and first displayed at the famous Stark Nurseries in Louisiana, Mo. Today, the Pacific Northwest mills boatloads of them into pasteurized apple juice. Some ordinary marketing specimens lack the acidity and flavor needed for good cooking. Their only real problem is that you should get them fresh, for they can get mealy and lose flavor over a long period of time. Store cold immediately if you buy local examples.

*Golden Delicious -- This fruit features a lovely, soft yellowish tint. It appeared mysteriously in 1914 on a West Virginia farm, apparently and illegitimately sired by a relative of Grimes Golden. It's a huge apple, normally, and its first startling shipment to the Stark Nurseries brought an offer of $5,000 for the original tree. The Golden is the prime apple right now for cold, raw service in salads and desserts. It also holds up in baking. Much of the variety goes into baby food.

*Jonathan -- A personal pet of the author's, the medium-sized Jonathan has been around as long as Johnny Appleseed, apparently because it was doing its thing as early as 1826 up in New York. The flavor of a mature Jonathan has wine-like overtones unheard of in lighter-flavored apples, golden varieties or even in many far Western red imports. It has a color that can only be described as bright red. One of the true versatile apples, an eating fruit as well as good in cooking, Jonathans are known for their heavy bearing on trees but tend to be unstable in storage. It is advantageous to buy fresh and use.

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